Friday, November 24, 2000
The Halifax Herald Limited

Secret calls, secret rules

JEAN CHRETIEN'S political problems as a lobbyist are not fading away even after a favourable ruling by his ethics counsellor. For this, he largely has himself to blame.

Mr. Chretien argues it is just dirty campaign politics for his opponents to go on pressing for a public inquiry and a police investigation now that federal ethics counsellor Howard Wilson has determined the prime minister broke no government rules in lobbying the president of the Federal Business Development Bank to approve a loan for a friend and constituent.

The PM says Alliance Leader Stockwell Day and Tory Leader Joe Clark have "have overstepped the bounds of fairness and decency" in criticizing the 1996 and 1997 phone calls, which were disclosed only last week. He even wants an apology.

There is no question Mr. Clark and Mr. Day have a political interest in keeping this issue alive in a campaign. And Mr. Day has overplayed the possibility of illegality. Mr. Clark has been more on target in focusing on the lack of credible guidelines and accountability measures.

But who gave them the stick at the politically ideal time? It was Mr. Chretien who called an early election without having previously revealed this skeleton in his closet. Had he long ago disclosed calls that he says were proper, they might not have had a dramatic impact on the hustings.

But there are more significant matters at play here than the dynamics of a campaign. Mr. Chretien is unable to shake the lobbying issue because of two fundamental misjudgments on his part.

The first was his failure to disclose the phone calls. For even if he had a right to make them, the public had a right to know.

If a loan is granted on the basis of calls from the prime minister, that is material information and should be in the loan file and open to scrutiny by the auditor general. Then the caller is accountable if the loan goes bad and public money is lost. It is just not acceptable for public funds to be loaned on the basis of undisclosed lobbying by anyone, including the prime minister.

Mr. Chretien's second mistake was failing to keep a 1993 Red Book promise to establish an independent ethics commissioner, with quasi-judicial status, reporting to Parliament.

Instead, he named Mr. Wilson as merely a counsellor - i.e. an adviser - reporting to Mr. Chretien himself and applying guidelines that have never been made public.

Not surprisingly, the findings of a watchdog with these deficiencies have been greeted with skepticism. This is not a reflection on Mr. Wilson; it is a reflection of his flawed mandate, undisclosed guidelines and lack of formal independence from government.

These flaws have rebounded on the prime minister: it is hard for Mr. Wilson to exonerate Mr. Chretien because his office lacks the institutional and legal stature to do that.

Basically, we are being told that Mr. Chretien's secret calls didn't break his secret rules. Or there is no rule, so there is no ethical problem.

This sounds uncomfortably like U.S. Vice-President Al Gore's famous and much mocked defence that there was "no controlling legal authority" to prevent him from mixing political fund-raising activities with his public duties.

Canadians can accept a finding that Mr. Chretien did not break a law in lobbying for a constituent. But they still expect him to carry out his MP's duties in a way that is open and subject to accountability in Parliament.

For that to be a reality, prime ministerial interventions that have financial consequences must go on the record for later scrutiny by the auditor general. And they must be subject to review by an ethics commissioner who has the same legislated independence as the auditor general.

Unless we have such provisions, every intervention by a prime minister will end up as a nasty political fight, campaign or no campaign. If that isn't what we want, credible rules with a credible authority to judge them are the answer.